Tech by VICE

Radio Motherboard: Burner Phones in the Borderlands

An undocumented migrant tells us about trying to cross the US-Mexico border remotely, with smugglers guiding him over the phone.

Apr 14 2016, 2:15pm

Radio tower in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Photo: MOTHERBOARD

This is part of BORDER LINES, a Motherboard series about burner phones and human smuggling in the US-Mexico borderlands. Follow along here.

In this special edition of Radio Motherboard we travel to the US-Mexico borderlands to gauge the viability of "remote control," a smuggling tactic whereby smugglers guide migrants across the border by phone. Human trafficking has never been this personal.

Show notes:

01:08: Now a migrant's guide might just be another voice on the end of the line.

02:20: "It's a money division, the smuggling of people." - Chino, an undocumented migrant who tried crossing via remote control

03:16, When Chino's smugglers picked him up they asked, "Do you have a phone?"

04:11 Years later, Chino's kept the phone as a souvenir.

05:00 Chino, on the run over the border, slams into a cactus

05:44, "I still have scars from the spikes"

07:11, Chino's smuggler hangs up. "He shut down the communication."

09:03 John Lawson, an 18-year Border Patrol agent, tells us phones in the hands of smugglers and migrants has been "the biggest and most difficult transition in all the technologies we've had to work with in terms of the movement of aliens and the ability to catch them… They call it 'remote control.'"

12:32, "Probably, they are guided remotely" - Guatemalan consul in Tucson

13:18 Remote control works for drug smuggling, too.

15:58: "With everyone going 4G now, and towers everywhere, covers has gotten a lot better… Scouts will let them know when it's safe to cross the border." - S.O., a special agent with BORTAC, Border Patrol's tactical and special response unit

17:39 : How Chino feels about remote control, three years on: "It's bullshit, man"

18:22: Hanging up, signing off!